Thursday's Keys

As tonight's NC State-Cincinnati game draws near, Pack Pride looks at several keys to the contest.

NC State Offense vs. Cincinnati Defense

Considering the numbers the Cincinnati offense has put up through three games, it's not a stretch to say NC State will likely need to put up 30-plus points to have a shot at beating the Bearcats.

However, equally important when they don't score is to keep the chains moving and the defense off the field. The Pack has done a fairly decent job of avoiding three and outs thus far and need to continue that at Cincinnati. Even if they don't get into scoring position, State needs to pick up a first down or two at a minimum and work to pin the Bearcats deep and force them to drive the length of the field to score.

One area the Pack may be able to take advantage of is on third down. Cincinnati has been generous against Tennessee and two lesser opponents- allowing the opposition to convert on roughly 40% of their third down attempts. This ranks the Bearcat defense No. 76 nationally in third down defense. If the Pack can make plays, eat up clock and keep the defense on the sidelines, their chances for a win should improve dramatically.

SCORE 7... NOT 3
NC State has been efficient in the red zone this year. They've had 10 drives inside the 20 and scored on nine of them. Just as impressive is the fact they've not had to settle for field goals. Of their nine scoring trips inside the red zone, the Pack has hit on seven touchdowns and just two field goals. Of the seven touchdowns scored State has been balanced with three rushing scores with four through the air.

Ironically, as well as State has performed inside the 20, Cincinnati's defense has been equally bad. The Bearcats have had opponents inside their 20 on 10 occasions, allowing scores on nine of them (seven touchdowns and two field goals.) This ranks UC 95th in the nation in red zone.

Clearly once you get Cincinnati's defense moving backwards, your odds go way up for a touchdown. The Pack needs to continue with the efficiency it's had in the red zone thus far in 2011.

Let's face it, this will be the first real road test of the year for NC State as far as facing a hostile crowd. The Pack played at Wake Forest a couple of weeks ago but there was as much red in the stadium as gold and black.

In addition to the crowd, State will also have to deal with a short week of preparation and the pressure of playing on national TV. All of that means the Pack has to stay composed and maintain its poise or they could be in for a long night against the Bearcats.

It's inevitable that State will have a turnover, bad penalty or find the going tough on offense at some point. The Pack has to make sure that those issues are overcome and aren't allowed to take the team out of the game mentally.

When you're trying to win on the road, it really boils down to limiting mistakes and execution. If the Pack can avoid those problems or limit them at the very least, a win is certainly possible.

NC State Defense vs. Cincinnati Offense

The most dangerous player on the field tonight is going to be wearing No. 23 for Cincinnati: senior tailback Isaiah Pead. An explosive talent, Pead has played sparingly the first three games but that hasn't prevented him from rushing for 257 yards and four touchdowns, including TD runs of 65 and 40 yards.

He's averaging 9.5 yards per carry, which is the top mark in the Big East and one of the best in the country. Cincinnati loves to get the ball in his hands out in space, where he can make defenders miss and take it to the house.

"We've invested a lot of time, effort and energy into our run game," said Bearcat head coach Butch Jones. "We want to get the ball into No. 23's hands as much as possible. In today's age of football you have to be able to establish the run."

Can NC State stop Pead? That's the biggest question, and key for the Wolfpack defense, heading into tonight's game. Thus far, lead runners have been able to grind out yardage versus NC State. Wake's Josh Adams rushed for 96 yards in their win over the Wolfpack, and last Saturday South Alabama's Kendall Houston totaled 117 yards on just 18 carries.

NC State can't allow Pead to reach those numbers. If he does, then it will allow Cincy's offense to remain multidimensional and the Bearcats possess a much more potent passing attack than Wake Forest and South Alabama. State's defense will be off-balance all night and likely get steamrolled by a powerful Bearcat offensive unit that has skill at all three positions and experience along the offensive line.

The Wolfpack's No. 1 priority... shutdown Isaiah Pead.

Even with Pead's production, Cincinnati is still a team that loves to throw the football. In their lone loss of the year, Pead rushed for 155 yards and a touchdown, but he had just 14 carries. Quarterback Zach Collaros was 21-of-34 for 230 yards and two touchdowns, and his numbers could have been even better if Tennessee didn't possess the ball for nearly 38 minutes.

With that being said, State must prevent Cincinnati from scoring on big plays. The Bearcats aren't necessarily a team that consistently sustains long drives. The majority of their scoring this year has come on big plays, either through the air, on the ground, or even defensively... and they've done it very quickly.

In last year's win over the Bearcats, Cincinnati had only one turnover and Collaros passed for 310 yards and three scores. However, for most of the game State prevented the big play and made Cincy drive down the field, which led to five sacks and the Bearcats converted just 3-of-13 3rd-down opportunities.

UC has had only two scoring drives all year that lasted longer than four minutes. Two. They have scored on 13 drives where they held the ball less than two minutes. Cincinnati has done a great job of generating good field position and capitalizing on mistakes but also scoring very quickly through big plays.

Cincy is No. 104 nationally in time of possession but No. 4 in scoring offense. They put points on the board and do it in a hurry. NC State has to prevent them from scoring quickly and make the Bearcats earn everything they get tonight.

On paper, this is a game that should be played fairly clean from a turnover standpoint. Cincinnati is No. 1 nationally in turnover margin (+4) and NC State checks in at No. 8 (1.67). While the Wolfpack has forced 11 turnovers, they've given the ball away six times.

The Bearcats have been outstanding in this area. Their defense has forced 13 turnovers, and the offense has just a lone fumble on the year... one turnover all season. Their ability to create turnovers and take care of the football is a major reason why they are scoring at such a prolific rate and doing so very quickly.

NC State has to win the turnover battle tonight. In a game that should be close and with both teams likely airing it out, the Wolfpack defense has to get to Collaros and pressure him into mistakes. State runs a pressure defense that will yield yards to opposing offenses. Their hope is they can force you into field goals in the redzone and or third-and-long situations that could lead to turnovers and sacks when they can consistently dial-up their blitz packages.

Both teams defenses have proven they can force turnovers. For NC State to win, their defense has to come up big and win the turnover battle.

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